Friday, July 19, 2013

Reading & Eating in Louisville

One of my dreams came true this last month. Junior year of high school I took the AP US History Exam. I remember my teacher giving us advice before the exam: "Listen, the people who grade these exams are miserable. They are stuck in a convention center all day, reading the same essay a hundred times. They hate their lives. Get to your point right away and be clear." Of course, this was good writing advice. But, this speech also inspired me to want to become one of those miserable people. Yeah...this says a bit about me at sixteen. Anyway, thirteen years later, six of them spent studying and/or teaching history, I am qualified to grade the exam. And, it wasn't a miserable experience. In fact, I loved it and I hope to be invited back next year.

For the past several years, the AP US History Reading has taken place in Louisville. I wanted to make the most of the all-expenses-paid (not all of this food) trip to Kentucky. I did what I always do on my solo vacations: eat and drink. Thanks to advice from Twitter people, I managed to have three excellent meals in Louisville.

The first good meal was at Harvest. This farm-to-table restaurant in the "NuLu" East Market District was a short fifteen-minute walk from my hotel. From what I gather, the neighborhood has improved quite a bit in the last three years. The area was quiet with nice restaurants, galleries, and boutique shops. It felt like Old City, without the annoying night life and Jersey crowd.

I wasn't sure if I was going to take pictures so I missed the appetizer. Honestly, I had a few bad restaurant experiences in Louisville and didn't think I was going to eat anything good. But, the Fried Chicken Liver appetizer was gluttonous perfection. I had a little chat with the bartender and ordered the Harvest Steak as an entree: a 28-day, in-house dry-aged strip with sweet-potato mash and onion ring things. The steak was also perfect. I found that farm-to-table is a real thing in Louisville; it's everywhere in a very authentic way. Every restaurant lists their farms and producers or has a map on the wall of the restaurant. None of it feels contrived.

My next stop was Eiderdown in the Germantown section of Louisville. Germantown is three miles southeast of downtown and I would have had to take two buses to get there. I decided to take a cab and it was worth it just for the conversation. I stepped into the cab and asked if he would take me to Germantown. He said yes, where and why? I mentioned the restaurant and he was curious about how I found out about the place, as "no tourist ever asks to go there." I have to thank a Twitter friend of a friend for this recommendation.

Germantown is a neighborhood of shotgun houses and the restaurant seemed like just another house. The experience was intimate and homey, the beer list was awesome (Three Floyds' Arctic Panzer Wolf!), and the food was spectacular. I wanted to eat everything on the menu. I did the best I could and ordered four courses. First, the Scallop Crudo with navel orange soup, rhubarb, fennel frond, shiso and sesame was on point. I don't know how else to say it. Perfect crudo with a not-too-overwhelming broth is a great start.

Next I had the Grilled Asparagus, calf's tongue, capriole sofia cheese, garlic confit, balsamic and oil. Dude! I was seriously impressed by the cheese. As soon as the plate arrived I thought it was Humboldt Fog. However, it's from a forty-year-old farm in Southern Indiana. The goat cheese was awesomely developed. It looks like a weirdly presented dish, but the tongue, cheese, and asparagus altogether in one bite was great.

For an entree I ordered the Milk-Braised Rabbit Leg and fried front leg, baby carrot, cippolini onion, and parsley potatoes. I love rabbit, but sometimes it can be prepared in a disappointing fashion. This rabbit was ridiculous (good)! The two different preparations of the rabbit made the dish continuously intriguing. The broth and the vegetables were also fantastic. Finally, I had dessert. I mean, let's face it, if you're a girl sitting by yourself at the bar, and you've already had three courses, just get dessert. I had the linzer torte with raspberry jam, vanilla creme fraiche, and hazelnut honey. I didn't finish it (I swear), but it was really excellent.

After dinner I walked to the Highlands section of Louisville to explore. I was told that this was the hipster section of town. However, I found it to be a mix of the worst of South Street and Northern Liberties. There are about four big Irish Bars, a few fast food restaurants, and some weird shops. Because of all of this, the feel of the main street, Bardstown Road, just wasn't for me. I took the bus home without partaking in this bizarre environment.

For my final awesome dining experience, I returned to the NuLu neighborhood. I went to Garage Bar just down the street from Harvest. The open-air restaurant has outdoor ping-pong, picnic tables, and a very trendy feel. I stopped there on First Friday and it was packed. The bar was full, but they had seating at their "ham bar" in front of the kitchen. That was okay with me and I proceeded to order a ton of food.

The server understood that I was there to eat and really helped me pick through the large menu. First, the place is known for it's wood-fired pizzas. Well, basically, I'm not ordering pizza anywhere, anytime soon (see: pizzeria beddia).

So with that off the table, my server helped me order from the snacks and small plates portion of the menu. I started with ham: Benton's Country Ham from Madisonville, TN. Amazing! Then I had Carmelized Cauliflower with capers, shallots, cilantro, curry, and chilis. The cauliflower was very good with nice heat. I also had the Turkey Wings. They were in a sort of spicy General Tso's sauce. This was one of the most amazing "snacks" I have ever had. I can still taste them right now. Someone in Philly needs to make this dish.

And, because I wasn't full yet, I ordered the Pork Meatballs. I probably didn't need them, but they were also good. I really enjoyed all of these dishes at Garage Bar because they had great, memorable flavor. None of it was timid; each dish was spicy, vibrant, and striking.

After eight days in Louisville I explored as much as I could without a car (ie. why I didn't make it to any distilleries). I'll end this with a few drawings from the AP Reading. There is a whole culture of traditions at the Reading. One guy creates cartoons from student quotes and posts them for everyone to see. Since I saw many people posting these on Facebook, I don't feel too bad putting them up here.

Harvest Restaurant 
624 East Market St. 
Louisville, KY 40202

983 Goss Avenue 
Louisville, KY 40217

Garage Bar
700 E Market St
Louisville, KY 40202

Monday, February 25, 2013

Amherst Revisited

This past weekend I returned to Amherst for the first time in nine months. I spent a mere thirty-one hours in Western Mass. And yet, that was all the time I needed.

As I concluded when I moved back to Pennsylvania, Amherst is a very difficult place to live. My main reason for making the quick trip to Amherst was to visit my advisor. However, I also wanted to revisit the place where I lived for three years. I had some nagging doubts that I was too hard on Amherst. Maybe it wasn’t as terrible as I thought. Yet, within minutes of driving over the Connecticut River into Hadley and Amherst, I felt everything I once felt. The depression, boredom, claustrophobia, and sense of hopelessness were as palpable as they were nine months ago.

The snow-covered landscape and grey skies emphasized the monotony of winter. There were huge mounds of snow in parking lots and dirty, sandy snow on the sides of the road. The rain and sleet reminded me that the days of wintry perfection are few and far between. If I was looking to feel better about Amherst, it was not going to happen in February.

In thirty-one hours I did all of my favorite things and saw all of my favorite people in Amherst. And, ultimately, I found what I needed on my short trip. I wanted a reminder that all the emotions I felt in Amherst were real. I experienced those emotions and I am not experiencing them now.

I moved.

Some things did not move with me.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Doing History and Mission Chinese Food NYC

I spent the past week in NY doing archival research for my dissertation. Since this was my first "real" research trip, I began to reflect on the research process. While I’ve done primary source research before, conceiving of a dissertation is an entirely different endeavor.

As a junior in college I took a history seminar called "Doing History." We read a bunch of seemingly disparate texts: Sartre, Hume, Whorf, Remembering Ahanagran, Kuhn. At the end of the course, perhaps too predictably, we each wrote a history of the course from our own perspective. As it turns out, this course was more about post-modernism than about archives.

In fact, I have never taken, nor had the opportunity to take, a course on archival research. Rather, doing history seems to be something you intuitively figure out. Through years of graduate coursework, if you read enough history books and examine the footnotes closely, you can figure out how it works.

By taking a feminist research methods class this past semester, I learned that historians aren't very good at describing what they "do." I searched and searched for articles about historical methods (preferably feminist historical methods, but not necessarily). I found bits and pieces in introductions. I discovered footnotes that referenced sections in the authors' dissertation (ILL purgatory). I became lost in arguments about the cultural/linguistic turn and what "deconstructing" text really means. Beyond the theoretical arguments, I did not find much about what historians do in the archives. Perhaps historians should become better at this; it might help them acquire funding grants.

Taking a break from hours spent scanning PDFs of microfilm and looking through interesting, but potentially useless documents, I went to dinner. Segue to food blog...

Tuesday night I went to Mission Chinese Food. I cannot take credit for finding out about this place. Longer story very short, the widely popular restaurant from San Francisco opened a location in the Lower East Side. A pretty small place, we sat at the four-person bar in the back. Well, all the seating is in the back. However, if you end up waiting for a table, they do offer free crap beer from a keg on ice.  

I took photos of all four dishes. Unfortunately, it looks liked I tried to use some hipstamatic red filter to make everything look cool. I'll only post one photo because they are painfully inadequate.

The food, however, was in the food-sex realm. The standout, must-eat-every-last-fatty-bit, dish, was the Kung Pao Pastrami. The "explosive chili" element made my tongue feel awesomely numb, the fat at the bottom of the dish was a pleasant reminder of the pastrami long since eaten, the celery was refreshingly crisp, and the peanuts added something to the mix. I can see how people might react poorly to the Sichuan peppercorns (actually, we saw a person react poorly), but I think the dish was the perfect combination of flavors and textures. The other dishes, Sichuan Pickled Vegetables, Chilled Buckwheat Noodles, and Stir Fried Sweet Peas, were also terribly satisfying. Everything was well cooked with bright and fresh flavors. 

Overall, the meal was the perfect antidote to a bit of archival wanderlust. After all, there’s always another day in the archive.

Mission Chinese Food
154 Orchard Street  
New York, NY 10002

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

San Diego Rundown

In an effort to be a better blogger (read:more prolific), I may have to set my personal standards a bit lower. I can't write about every place I eat/drink with any serious amount of depth, but I can put it out there with highlights. 

San Diego was awesome. People seemed genuinely friendly. Everyone had at least one dog. The weather was perfect: 65, no humidity, mostly sunny. Multiple Bikram studios. Tons of breweries. I'm not sure what's missing.

I did some food research and tried to visit as many places as I could without completely ruining myself for the marathon. Here are the highlights:

1. Stone Brewing Co. Escondido: The "Stone World Bistro and Gardens" building is giant, without signage, and absolutely gorgeous. There's a stream/pond that runs through the restaurant. Every material used is beautiful, weighty, and appropriate.

I was worried about the food, as many reviews complained that it is expensive and not worth it. Yes, the food is "expensive," but it was worth it. The hummus was fresh and the boar ribs were some of the most tender meat I've ever had. While the beer was great too, I would visit this restaurant just for the beautiful interior.

2. Pizza Port, Solana Beach: Alright, this place blew my mind. Both the food and their system is perfect. Start to finish, I have nothing bad to say about it. It was all very no hassle.

Additionally, this may be the best pizza I have ever had. Look at the crust. Look at it. I'm not a fan of thin-crust, so if that's your style, this isn't for you. I like dough (cooked or uncooked) and I like the crust to be substantial. It was perfect bread, perfectly cooked. Sauce and cheese were also in good proportion.

3. PrepKitchen, San Diego: One of the more challenging tasks of traveling with a conservative, yet tentatively adventurous, eater is finding at least one thing on the menu that they can order. After I find that one dish (usually a burger), I hope that the rest of the menu has some amount of creativity and appeal. 

I chose PrepKitchen because it seemed to have a normal enough menu, but with good flavor combinations. I have a bit of a weakness for duck. Duck confit in June? I don't even care, I want it. The dish, with lentils, watercress, and apricot mostarda, was salty perfection.

I also appreciate seeing new ideas at restaurants. Under the dessert category is a "Kitchen Sixer" for $7.00. Why not have someone else pay for the kitchen to drink?

4. Underbelly, San Diego: I can't take credit for finding this one. The weekend before my trip the NYTimes did a San Diego beer scene write up. I'm always wary about following the NYTimes out of town recommendations. The restaurant itself is very pretty and modern. The wholly transparent indoor/outdoor bar aspect of its design doesn't exist anywhere in Philly (that I can think of). Another order at a register, take a number, and sit anywhere system. I'm a fan of simplicity. I ordered the meat ramen, instead of the basic version. I figured I needed protein for the marathon the next day. 

The soft-boiled egg was perfectly runny, the noodles were nice, the char-su belly, applewood smoked bacon, and Korobuta Sausage were flavorful, and the broth was okay. 
I also appreciate a good restaurant mission statement. Underbelly may have the longest manifesto I have ever seen. But it is fantastic: "Everything will be ok."

"You get out of the pot what you put in the pot."
5. Whisknladle, La Jolla: Eating brunch after running a marathon is a necessity. Around mile 20 I start thinking about brunch. This is perhaps the one time that obsessing about brunch is not obnoxious. After burning 3381 calories, there is no guilt about eating as much as I want. 

I wanted to see La Jolla, so Whisknladle (owned by PrepKitchen) seemed like a nice venture. The town is very California cute. Unfortunately, I was too sore to hobble around. Walking from the car to the restaurant was my limit.

I chose the heartiest menu item: pork shoulder verde. Or, meat and eggs with tortillas. I really enjoyed this brunch, but I would have been happy with just about anything at that point.

Also of note, Whisknladle has a self-serve coffee setup and a "wake 'n 'bake" pastry bar with jam and spreads. I think this idea is genius. First, serving coffee is a pain. Allowing customers to get their own coffee avoids a whole bunch of annoying time-wasting serving activities. Second, when people go get the coffee, they see the scones, and will probably decide to have one. For $3.50 each, the pastries with homemade jams were worth it. 

5. Rudy's Taco Shop, Solana Beach: Unfortunately, my trip didn't allow me to go crazy on cheap Mexican food. I made one attempt. The result was pretty mixed. 

The carnitas was a winner. Unfortunately, the carne asada had a sort of barnyard-y, off flavor that was rather alarming. The quesadilla was the thinnest I've ever seen; not like any American version. The small amount of cheese and the flat-top grease on the outside of it was fantastic. Really.

I wish I could have tried more Mexican food in San Diego to make comparisons. I suppose I understand the appeal of cheap food. But, I still want the food to be better than hit or miss.

6. Ballast Point Brewing Co., San Diego: Stopping at Ballast Point was a must. There's nothing quite like drinking really hoppy beer in the middle of the afternoon with no food. After a few trips to the lone container of free pretzels, I start to feel bad about myself. 

No real complaints, just good beer: Sculpin, Fathom IPL, Barmy Ale, Wahoo Wheat, Even Keel.

7. The Linkery, San Diego: In my search for crowd-pleasing restaurants, I was
also looking for a restaurant in a hipstery neighborhood. In the North Park section of town, The Linkery fits the hipster restaurant category: interesting menu, odd space, gentrifying neighborhood, ample street parking, bartender with handlebar mustache.

I decided to try this place because they make all of their own sausage. You can order the daily offerings of sausage alone or in various other forms of sandwiches and platters. 

I tried the cochinita pibil and fresh polish as a picnic plate. Not only was the sausage delicious, but the bread and potato salad was amazing. I love bread and I most certainly love grilled bread. Furthermore, I have never seen such giant potato salad. I was worried about how consistently the potatoes would be cooked, but it didn't matter. The potato salad was perfect.

Interestingly, an 18% service charge is included with the bill. The menu suggests that if you would like to "express extra gratitude" that any cash left behind will be given to their charity of the month. I've never seen this idea before, but it sounds good.

All in all, San Diego was better than I imagined. I have added it to my list of terribly tempting west coast cities. This list seems to grow each time I go out there.